The History of Labor Day – U.S. Department of Labor

Source: The History of Labor Day – U.S. Department of Labor

Labor Day: What it means

Labor Day, the first Monday in September, is a creation of the labor movement and is dedicated to the social and economic achievements of American workers. It constitutes a yearly national tribute to the contributions workers have made to the strength, prosperity, and well-being of our country.

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Labor Day legislation

Through the years the nation gave increasing emphasis to Labor Day. The first governmental recognition came through municipal ordinances passed during 1885 and 1886. From these, a movement developed to secure state legislation. The first state bill was introduced into the New York legislature, but the first to become law was passed by Oregon on February 21, 1887. During the year four more states — Colorado, Massachusetts, New Jersey, and New York — created the Labor Day holiday by legislative enactment. By the end of the decade Connecticut, Nebraska, and Pennsylvania had followed suit. By 1894, 23 other states had adopted the holiday in honor of workers, and on June 28 of that year, Congress passed an act making the first Monday in September of each year a legal holiday in the District of Columbia and the territories.

Founder of Labor Day

More than 100 years after the first Labor Day observance, there is still some doubt as to who first proposed the holiday for workers.

Some records show that Peter J. McGuire, general secretary of the Brotherhood of Carpenters and Joiners and a cofounder of the American Federation of Labor, was first in suggesting a day to honor those “who from rude nature have delved and carved all the grandeur we behold.”

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But Peter McGuire’s place in Labor Day history has not gone unchallenged. Many believe that Matthew Maguire, a machinist, not Peter McGuire, founded the holiday. Recent research seems to support the contention that Matthew Maguire, later the secretary of Local 344 of the International Association of Machinists in Paterson, N.J., proposed the holiday in 1882 while serving as secretary of the Central Labor Union in New York. What is clear is that the Central Labor Union adopted a Labor Day proposal and appointed a committee to plan a demonstration and picnic.

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President Woodrow Wilson (left) with American Federation of Labor President Samuel Gompers (center), and Labor Secretary William B. Wilson at an undated Labor Day rally
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An illustration of the first Labor Day parade, held on Sept. 5, 1882, in New York City. The holiday was organized by the Central Labor Union to exhibit “the strength and esprit de corps of the trade and labor organizations” of the community, and to host a festival for the workers and their families
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New York, New Jersey and Colorado were among the first states to approve state legal holidays. In response to support for a national holiday, Sen. James Henderson Kyle of South Dakota introduced a bill to make Labor Day a legal holiday on the first Monday of September each year. It was approved June 28, 1894
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After the first celebration in New York City, other localities began to pick up the idea for a fall festival of parades and picnics celebrating workers. Here, the Women’s Auxiliary Typographical Union takes part in a Labor Day parade (undated)
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Members of the Bakers Union Local 78 march in the Detroit, Mich., Labor Day parade. Date unknown, likely 1950s or 60s
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Children march in the 1963 New York City Labor Day parade. Since the very first celebration, Labor Day has been a time for families to relax and have fun
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A float celebrates the Department of Labor’s 75th anniversary in the 1987 Chicago Labor Day parade. The vital force of labor in the U.S. has contributed substantially to the highest standard of living and the greatest production the world has ever known

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